Welcome one and all to today’s Read-It-If; a nicely layered story that hit all the right notes in the correct order for me and at a comfortable volume for a memorable reading experience. I received a copy of Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer from Simon and Schuster Australia after lusting after its intriguing title and arresting cover for quite a little while. I am also in possession of a sweet little paperback copy of Belzhar courtesy of Simon and Schuster that needs a new, loving home. Australians who wish to apply for the privelege can enter using the rafflecopter link in this post. Hurrah!
Now, let’s explore the strange and alluring experience that is Belzhar, shall we?
After the sudden loss of her first love Reeve, Jamaica (Jam) falls apart emotionally and is sent to spend a term at therapeutic boarding school, The Wooden Barn. On being unexpectedly enrolled in the coveted Special Topics in English class, Jam meets four other teens – Sierra, Casy, Marc and Griffin – who are also dealing with traumatic life events that feature loss or grief. The Special Topics class are furnished with a red leather journal and a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and are required to complete both as their task for the semester. When Jam and the others write in their journals however, they are transported in their minds to a seemingly perfect place in which the traumatic events of their past never occured. They name this place Belzhar, but as the end of their journals draws closer, the group begin to worry about what will happen once their journals are filled. Will they choose to move on and leave Belzhar behind, or find a way to keep their perfect worlds open forever?
Read it if:
* you like your contemporary school/romance/teen-angst reads to feature a mildly fantastical twist
* you like your fantastical twists to feature an even more intriguing twist of realism
* you are prepared to put up with an awful lot of pining and reminiscence on the part of the main character
* you’ve ever bought a note book with a beautiful cover because you are convinced that writing in it will induce some sort of magical power (I know I’m guilty of this one)
The first thing you’re going to notice when dipping into Belzhar is that Jam, the 15 year old main character, REALLY misses her boyfriend, English exchange student, Reeve. Some people are going to find Jam’s ongoing desolation at his loss quite tedious in a very short period of time. I was nearly one of those people – until I remembered that Wolitzer was writing a 15 year old character, and as anyone past their teenage years will know, 15 year olds have been known through the ages as liable to get hung up on certain issues, particularly when those issues involve a first love. So while I did find Jam’s despair fairly annoying in parts, I felt that it was appropriate to the character’s age and situation, so I went with it. Consider yourself duly warned.
To me, Belzhar was like the Narnia of the teen grief-and-loss set. I appreciated the way that Wolitzer used familiar tropes such as the inspiring and enigmatic teacher and the teens’ passage into another world through an ordinary object in order to set (most of) the characters on the path from ignorance to insight. While the ending of the story (in terms of the characters’ states of mind) is fairly predictable, there are a few twists before that ending that throw the fate of certain people into doubt and provide fresh insight for the reader into the earlier parts of the story.
The references to Sylvia Plath and her work will no doubt be a drawcard for some – not me, incidentally, as I found that story to be not so much depressing as woefully tedious – but Plath’s work is only really discussed in a perfunctory manner as something that the Special Topics class could relate to. Although admittedly, as I’m not an expert on Plath I could well be missing some major nuance here. If so, please excuse my ignorance and feel free to enlighten me!
While this wasn’t a groundbreaking novel in my opinion, there is plenty here that will pique the interest of those who are looking for a contemporary novel containing a slight flight of fancy and featuring teens working through a range of difficult life experiences. Themes of friendship and emotional risk are highlighted and readers can make up their own minds about whether or not living in a perfect idyll created by one’s own psyche is a necessity or a hinderance when working through episodes of loss.
I would recommended Belzhar particularly for those at the younger end of the YA age bracket, with the caveat that older readers may be put off by the teen-ness of the main character.
Belzhar will be released in Australia on October 9th, but Australian readers can have a bash at winning a free copy using the rafflecopter link below. Good luck!
Until next time,